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Movie in the works about deadliest fire in Belgian history

17:43 20/04/2021

Belgian director Jan Verheyen is preparing to make a new movie about one of the deadliest disasters in Belgian peace-time history: the L’Innovation department store fire of 1967. The fire swept through the chic Brussels department store in minutes, killing 250 people and leaving more than 60 injured.

L’Innovation was the star of Rue Neuve, a multi-storied Art Nouveau building designed by no less than Victor Horta. It opened in 1903, punctuated with many passageways and cubbyholes to “cage” consumers, as Horta himself put it, in keeping with the marketing strategy of the building’s owners.

In the years that followed, the department store was not fully fitted with modern fire safety measures. Gas cannisters were stored on site, and there was no sprinkler system. L’Innovation had also been extended, including a connection with a nearby building, which complicated exit options further.

The fire began in the early afternoon of 22 May 1967 and went from a localised fire in a storeroom to engulfing the building in flames within 10 minutes. In the end 251 bodies were recovered, but most of them could never be conclusively identified.

Rumours of terrorism

The cause of the fire was determined to be a florescent light that overheated, coupled with a gas leak. But a theory that has persisted to this day claims that the fire was deliberately set or the result of make-shift bombs planted by leftist organisations.

L’Innovation was it the middle of a big ‘American happening’ at the time of the fire. The arrival of new products from the US were celebrated with flags and other red, white and blue decor, and even a big parade down the Rue Neuve. The Vietnam war was raging, and anti-American protests had taken place outside the department store. Maoist sympathisers had also sent threatening letters to the store and tossed smoke bombs in the street.

A few years ago, a Belgian art historian whose parents died in the fire published a novel based on the history of the event and testimonies from survivors with whom he spoke. The novel follows the line that the fire was the result of an attack by a group organised by Europe’s first Maoist party.

The Innovation department store on fire in 1967
The fire caused parts of the building to collapse, leaving nothing but ruins  ©Belga archives

The novel was called Happening, a title that will also be used for the movie, according to its director. While the fire being the result of terrorism has long been rejected by authorities and experts as a conspiracy theory, particularly in light of the testimony of department store staff that discovered the fire, the movie will also emphasise this line of thinking.

Verheyen has been awarded €1 million by the Flanders Audiovisual Fund, the largest subsidy it has ever awarded to a single film. “We have to reconstruct this historical event,” Verheyen told VRT. “The special effects will be extremely expensive to create.”

In fact, he will need a few more million to make Happening, but that should be easier, he said, with this vote of confidence from the Flemish agency. In the best-case scenario, he will start shooting the film by the end of the year, he said.

L’Innovation was, by the way, the first of what would become a chain of department stores called Inno.

Photo top: Several building in the immediate area of L’Innovation were evacuated, including a day care centre  ©Belga archives

 

Written by Lisa Bradshaw